Sonic, in case you missed it, celebrated his 15th birthday earlier this year. Which is more than can be said for some of the costume-clad girls tottering around the TGS showfloor by the looks of it. But SEGA's defiantly evergreen mascot is currently undergoing yet another rejuvenating makeover as the core 3D action-platform element of the franchise evolves onto next-gen.
Having already treated us to a playable glimpse of the title at E3 and Leipzig, Sonic Team very thoughtfully whacked together a brand new demo for its Japanese showcase - a single level affair which gives you the choice between Sonic and Silver as before, while adding Shadow the Hedgehog to the guest list.
Anyone who's experienced a 3D Sonic title since Adventure helped launch the ill-fated Dreamcast console should know the drill. Think rocky outcrops, verdant swathes of foliage, bottomless drops and dizzying towers, infested with an angry mob of robotic menaces intent on flogging a 'hog.
The multi-character experience is now a well-worn path for the series to tread. Each character, as you'd expect, has unique abilities and in the demo we rattled through earlier this afternoon, each has its own distinct and fairly linear route through the stage.
Back to basics
'Next-gen' Sonic does not suggest anything that obviously equates to a generational leap in gameplay on this evidence. But after the wayward, ill-advised travesty that was Shadow the Hedgehog, it's little wonder that SEGA has opted so very consciously to return squarely and unashamedly to what it believes it does best.
The 'official' reason for the move back to the traditional style of the 3D outings is a desire to capture the essence of Sonic's appeal in honour of the indefatigable critter's birthday. As the game's producer, Masahiro Kumono, explained to us after our playtest: "This is the 15th anniversary Sonic title so we've gone back to his roots - that's the speed and also the coolness of his style. We wanted to use the power of the next-gen to really bring this out in the Sonic universe."
Sonic's path is a mix of high-speed ring collecting, bumper-cannoning and enemy droid-clobbering, interspersed with scripted interlocking sections which move you around the terrain - Sonic gets to cling perilously to the claws of a swooping eagle at one point; and he also glides along magical, cloud-like rails. There are brief moments when a burst of speed is required, but in the main your platforming skills and ability to use Sonic's homing attack and dive-bomb actions offer the keys to success.
Shadow, mercifully gun-free in this demo, shares many of Sonic's characteristics as you'd expect, while lacking the breakneck pace. Shadow works a different route, and you can pummel your way to the end-of-stage star. Though not in this level, we're told Shadow can also take control of a number of vehicles throughout the game.
Silver does bring new abilities to the table. Namely psychic powers which, with the tap of a right shoulder button, afford telekinetic abilities that let you grab objects large and small with one button press, then fling them enemy - or catapult-wards with another. Not only that, but Silver can also use his mind to bend open iron bars blocking his way, while using hefty crates to pound down the occasional stone-based obstacle.
Tails you lose
Kumono added that while Sonic, Shadow and Silver are the main protagonists in the adventure, a further nine veterans, including (just when Tom thought it was safe) the likes of Tails, will also make appearances at appropriate junctures in the story to assist the leads.
Visually, the attention to detail and animation look lovely in HD and the single environment on display is rendered vivid in colour and grand in scale. The sporadic bursts of alacrity are satisfyingly, well, speedy although at this stage in its development the action could on the whole run a little more smoothly for our liking - on both the PS3 and 360 versions. Technically, it's no cure for Alzheimer's, but it does still carry a next-gen sheen sexiness.
Our biggest gripe was with the dodgy camera - an ongoing issue with the series, and one that appears not to have been fully resolved if the instances where we were fighting to swing it round towards our immediate foes were anything to go by. And the stalwart spirit-crushing frustration of ostensibly random plunges into bottomless gorges when using the homing attack remains a source of considerable pain.
A game of two halves
So far so familiar, as far as the TGS demo is concerned. However, Kumono insisted that such action sequences will only form half of the finished next-gen Sonic experience. In a heavy tribute to Sonic Adventure, hub worlds and locations the characters must visit and explore will form a fundamental part of the game.
This element in the Dreamcast launch title split opinion right down the middle and was, rightly or wrongly, unceremoniously dumped in subsequent titles. But it seems both RPG-lite adventuring as well as classic platforming will define Sonic's next-gen outing.
"The playable demo represents only a small part of the game itself," Kumono confided. "It's just an action stage. The whole title includes a town stage which includes adventure elements; you can interact with other people. When Sonic is in the town he can go to the store and buy upgrades - to make him faster for instance - using customised shop items.
"I worked in production on Sonic Adventure and we wanted to expand that element and make it so you communicate with people in the town and have sub-missions," Kumono added. "We wanted to make it more like an adventure game - not just another action-oriented Sonic."
It's a decision that is sure to prove controversial, but one that does at least alleviate our concerns that the section covered by the demo hardly represents the giant leap for the series the initial hype led us to expect.
As such, it's pointless attempting to draw any meaningful conclusions until Sonic Team and SEGA see fit to lay bare their hero's rediscovered adventurous spirit. What's there at present will certainly satisfy without particularly wowing fans of 3D-era Sonic; and will surely again fail to sway the classic 2D-worshipping purists. Whether this bold blending of styles will prove a mature design development or simply a 15 year-old's teenage tantrum remains to be seen. But intrigued we most definitely are.
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